The details vary, but the legend goes that at some point when Steinman and Meat Loaf were being rejected by all of the record labels on earth, someone brought up the Ira Kosloff and Maurice Mysels song “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” made famous by Elvis Presley and said, “Why can’t you write something like that?” So, Steinman went home and wrote, “I want you/I need you/But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you/Now don’t be sad/’Cause two out of three ain’t bad.” I have often called that story Jim Steinman in a nutshell–the impish humor, the use of a common English idiom in an unusual way, the competitive attitude, and the turning a trope on its head are all vintage Steinman trademarks, and they may never be on more obvious display than they are here.
In “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” Kosloff and Mysels present a common, simple picture: “Every time that you’re near/All my cares disappear/ . . . Never leave me alone/’Cause I die every time we’re apart/I want you, I need you, I love you/With all my heart.” Steinman, however, isn’t just making a joke: it’s a song about pain, regret, and romantic failure. It takes a bit of close reading of the lyrics to realize it, but Meat Loaf is actually trying to sell himself on the idea that he doesn’t love the object of the song by borrowing a phrase from an earlier romantic partner.
The scene opens with, “Baby, we can talk all night/But that ain’t getting us nowhere/I told you everything I possibly can/There’s nothing left inside of here,” presenting the image of a couple talking about their relationship deep into the night (already a bad sign), her “cry[ing] all night” to no avail and him “try[ing] to show [her] just how much he care[s.]” However, what the chorus ultimately means is revealed by two lines in this first verse: “I wish you wouldn’t make me leave here” and “But you’ve been cold to me so long/I’m crying icicles instead of tears.” From those words, it sounds more like he’s the party being rejected in this relationship. And it’s from the place of pain and loss that the chorus really comes.
At a loss as to how to convince her to let him stay, he claims, “I want you/I need you/But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you/Now don’t be sad/’Cause two out of three ain’t bad.” Like the Queensrÿche song “I Don’t Believe in Love,” this isn’t a defiance or a rejection by the singer but rather what he tells himself to assuage his pain and suffering after losing her. The next verse finds him claiming to be incapable of love, listing several examples of trying to find something in a place it cannot exist that ends with the immortal line, “But there ain’t no Coup de Ville/Hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.” He explains that “There is only one girl that I will ever love/And that was so many years ago/And though I know I’ll never get her out of my heart/She never loved me back/Ooh I know” and of course, what did she say to him on the way out the door? This could be a real or imagined past experience, but either way he is hiding behind those words in order to avoid the pain of loss and rejection.
There are those who claim that Steinman’s lyrics are cliché and simple, uncritically and unrepentantly repeating rock and roll’s tropes from its first couple of decades with some silly wordplay to try to sound intellectual. In response, I submit that this song embodies Steinman’s abilities as a lyricist. Like a revisionist filmmaker, he uses the tropes but turns around their meaning, and like the best revisionist filmmakers, he does so in a way that returns the power they had before they were so overused. And even though one could argue that he’s telling a bit of an unusual tale, he’s dealing with emotions that are nearly universal. (Sportswriter and radio personality Tony Kornheiser, a high school classmate of Steinman’s, has described first hearing this song and asking, “Why does this feel as if it’s written for me, personally?” He is far from the only person to have that feeling. And presenting a universal feeling as if it’s deeply personal is one of the most powerful things a piece of music can do.) It’s really the story of someone losing a romantic partner and trying to cope, and it’s probably the best version of that attempt to cope ever committed to music.
The song opens with a simple, slowly-picked-out piano line that has always given me the impression of the snow falling down that the lyrics mention in the first verse until it turns into the chords that will serve as the bed for the rest of the song. Quietly twangy lead guitars fill in the space between those chords and Meat Loaf’s voice, which is again more restrained but now using his intense vibrato to create an emotional resonance–he sounds an inch shy of crying as he narrates. A backing vocal that Rundgren compared to the Eagles helps give the song some body at moments up until the chorus, which brings in louder drums and Kenneth Ascher’s strings to make the Eagles comparison even more apt. If the Eagles had been from the east coast instead of the west coast, it’s easy to imagine this is how they would have sounded. Steinman always pushed the Elvis narrative–that it’s the type of song Elvis could have done–but the Eagles were sort of a contemporary version of the same sound, so that makes sense.
Jim Steinman didn’t really do simple, everyday pop songs, but “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad” is one of the closest examples he ever had, and it’s a spectacular one.